History

Since 1988, 651 ARTS has been committed to developing, producing and presenting performance and cultural programming rooted in the African Diaspora, with a primary focus on contemporary performing arts. 651 ARTS serves the cultural life of New York City, with a particular focus on Brooklyn, one of America’s most culturally diverse communities.

Key Artistic Highlights

2009 — In celebration of the enormous contributions of women in the arts, and specifically the leadership of 651, 651 ARTS dedicated its 20th Anniversary Season to women artists of African descent featuring music, theater, and dance performances by some of the world’s most extraordinary female performers, including Toni Blackman, BlueNefertiti, and Tamar-kali: Psychochamber Ensemble. The season finale presentation, FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance, featured solos by dance luminaries Germaine Acogny, Carmen de Lavallade, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. The season culminated with a champagne and dessert reception honoring the contributions and achievements of 651 co-founder, friend, and mentor, Mikki Shepard.

2007–2008 — 651 ARTS celebrates the Mississippi Delta with the Mississippi Delta Heritage Project — a two-week festival that examines the vibrant and rich connections of the Delta Blues to the diverse musical genres of gospel and jazz, and examines the African roots of the American Blues tradition. The Festival is a tribute to the living Delta Blues masters and includes live performances; intensive instrument workshops in harmonica and washboard; residencies with Blues artists in Brooklyn public schools; and a late night Juke Joint featuring Blues greats T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, and Terry “Harmonica” Bean. Other artists featured in the festival include: Cassandra Wilson, Corey Harris, Olu Dara, Dianne McIntyre, Ping Chong, Talvin Wilkes, Marie Knight, Lobi Traore, Sharde Thomas & The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, Toshi Reagon, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Michael Hill, Ricky Gordon, and Reggie Wilson.

2006–2007 — 651 ARTS collaborates with Danspace Project in the presentation of South African production Men-Jaro, choreographed by Vincent Mantsoe and scored by South African ethnomusicologist, Anthony Caplan, as well as with the presentation of Like An Idiot — a solo work created by Brazilian choreographer/dancer Cristina Moura. Anthony Caplan receives a 2007 Bessie Award for his Men-Jaro composition.

651 ARTS brings the powerful production Fagaala to New York for a sold-out presentation at the BAM Harvey Theater. Japanese choreographer, Kota Yamazaki, and Senegalese choreographer/performer, Germaine Acogny, team up to combine Japanese Butoh with traditional and contemporary African dance, inspired by Murambi, The Book of Bones, Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop’s account of the catastrophic genocide that occurred in Rwanda, and by interviews with survivors of the genocide. While inspired by a particular historical event — the piece became a response to all genocides that have taken place throughout history. The seventy-minute work is performed by Acogny’s company of eight male dancers: Jant-Bi.  Yamazaki and Acogny received 2007 Choreographer Bessie Awards for Fagaala.

651 ARTS presents Scourge — a powerful, political and revolutionary look at Haiti in its 200th year as a sovereign nation. Acclaimed poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph fuses hip hop, spoken word, and live music to explore the narrow space between history, myth and speculation. This collaboration with choreographers Adia Whitaker, Rennie Harris and Stacy Prince, and director Kamilah Forbes, merges urgent voices, music and movement in a timely and poignant multimedia work. The presentation is in collaboration with Dance Theater Workshop.

2005–2006 — 651 ARTS forged a partnership with the newly-built 320-seat Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, adding it to our roster of local performance spaces. Highlights of the season include two concerts celebrating jazz legend Randy Weston in his 80th year: one in which he plays solo piano — his first time ever in Brooklyn — to an intimate group of 100 people who are seated on the stage with him; and two nights later, an all-out bash in which over a dozen other jazz greats come out to play with Weston.  Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, declared January 14, 2006, “Randy Weston Day.” 

651 ARTS brings a deeply moving, triumphant and important theater work from South Africa to Brooklyn for three performances.  Amajuba, which tells the real life stories of the performers growing up in impoverished townships during Apartheid, receives standing ovations each evening.  The response to the piece from our national colleague presenters, who attend the show while in New York for an Arts Presenters conference, is overwhelming, and as a result several further engagements of Amajuba are contracted for cities throughout the United States. 

2004–2005 — 651 ARTS presents sold-out performances of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence at the BAM Harvey Theater as part of our signature series Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation.

Daniel Bernard Roumain and the Mission SQ Unit premiere A Civil Rights Reader, a musical work for string quartet and voice that pays tribute to the artist Romare Bearden and celebrates his love of jazz.

The Son Sonora Ensemble gives a rousing performance of Dr. George Walker’s String Quartet No. 1 (1946) and String Quartet No. 2 (1966) as part of 651 ARTS’ Salon 651 series. This ensemble, brought together by composer/conductor Tania León in 2004, features musicians and composers of diverse ethnic backgrounds.  Dr. Walker, the first African American to win the Pulitzer prize for music, and now in his eighties, is inspired to record the works with this quartet.  651 ARTS provides the capital to record these quartets.

2003–2004 — 651 ARTS celebrates its 15th Anniversary season with performances by Cassandra Wilson and Angelique Kidjo, and creates a new program series, Salon 651, which offers presentations in intimate settings at affordable ticket prices.

Black Dance Tradition and Transformation kicks off the season with the New York debut of Movement (R)evolution: New African Dance. A national tour organized by 651 ARTS, UApresents, and the University of Florida, Movement (R)evolution presents three distinct companies from three equally distinct countries — Sello Pesa from South Africa; Compagnie Rary from Madagascar; and Compagnie Kongo Ba Téria from Burkina Faso. Each company exemplifies the richness of contemporary performance created in Africa today.

2002–2003 — Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Urban Bush explore the concept of “nappy hair” and its relationship to images of beauty, social position, heritage, and self-esteem, in Hair Stories at the Triangle Theater at Long Island University.

Higher Ground, a music concert of spiritually-themed compositions by Stevie Wonder takes place at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill featuring the Emmanuel Baptist Church Choir and guest vocalists, led by Musical Director Akua Dixon.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performs Flight Project at the BAM Harvey Theater. The performance features the New York premiere of Bebe Miller’s AERODIGM, a new work commissioned by DCDC for the Flight Project to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first flight of the Wright Brothers.

2001–2002 — Rennie Harris and his company PureMovement perform Rome & Jewels, a hip-hop ballet inspired by Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, at the BAM Harvey Theater.

651 ARTS produces Rivers at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, featuring an ensemble of poets, writers, musicians, and performers, including Sekou Sundiata, Sarah Jones, and Amiri Baraka, among others, paying tribute to Langston Hughes in the centennial year of his birth.

2000–2001 — 651 opens its season with Udu, a music theater work by Sekou Sundiata and Craig Harris that explores contemporary slavery in Africa.

The second year of Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation receives rave reviews, featuring new works by Abdel R. Salaam and his Forces of Nature dance company, Bebe Miller Company, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence and the exclusive U.S. engagement of Salia Ni Seydou from Burkina Faso.

Iceland, a new collaboration between award-winning actor Roger Guenveur Smith and musician Marc Anthony Thompson receives a welcoming response by theater enthusiasts.

Inspired by the legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, Spirituals to Swing brings together the latest jazz talents, including Cyrus Chesnut, Vincente Archer, Wycliffe Gordon, and Mark Whitfield, in a captivating performance of jazz standards and Gospel music.

Creative Outlet Dance Theater, a company based in Brooklyn, closes the season playing to full houses and standing ovations.

1999–2000 — 651 receives a significant grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to endow our signature program, Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation.

651 is selected as the New York host organization for the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation’s project, Artists & Communities: America Creates for the Millennium.

651 presents Grammy-nominee Randy Weston in a concert with the Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco and guest artist Babatunde Olantunji.

The season also features award-winning actor Roger Guenveur Smith in A Huey P. Newton Story, his fêted collaboration with musician Marc Anthony Thompson.

In memory of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program, 651 presents The Music Never Stops, a mind-opening jazz concert featuring Abbey Lincoln, Geri Allen, Jack DeJohnette and a group of gifted young jazz talents.

1998–1999 — Celebrating its 10th anniversary, 651, An Arts Center modifies its name to 651 ARTS. A new logo and graphic image symbolize the organization’s second phase of operations.

651 opens its season with JazzTrain, a new work by 651 artist Donald Byrd and musicians Max Roach, Geri Allen and Vernon Reid.

Other season highlights include Dance and Spiritual Life, a triple bill of dance works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Bebe Miller and Dianne McIntyre with live music by Hannibal Lokumbe; a preview screening of Blackside Inc.’s documentary I’ll Make Me a World, followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Spike Lee, composer/musician Toshi Reagon, actor (Slam) Saul Williams, and The New York Times Cultural Critic Margo Jefferson, moderated by NPR Senior Editor Sharon Green. As part of I’ll Make Me a World, 651 builds a coalition with thirteen New York City arts institutions to create programs around the theme of the documentary. As a direct result of its Africa Exchange program, 651 presents the African opera Waramba, created by Ensemble Koteba d’Abidjan from the Ivory Coast.

1997–1998 — 651 presents the landmark two-day concert and symposia, Sung and Unsung/Jazz Women, devoted to the celebration and exploration of the collective story of women in jazz. 651 and the Smithsonian Institute collaborate to bring together world-class performers, scholars, producers, and music professionals for a series of panel discussions, lecture/demonstrations, presentations, and “musical interludes.” Performers include the legendary Abbey Lincoln, contemporary stars Geri Allen and Fostina Dixon, and the all-women ensembles Jazzberry Jam!, Uptown String Quartet and DIVA.

651 co-commissions and co-produces with the Brooklyn Academy of Music the New York premiere of The Harlem Nutcracker, a major new work created by 651 artist-in-residence Donald Byrd/The Group. With music by Duke Ellington, The Harlem Nutcracker tells the story of a middle-class Black woman who, in the process of looking back on her life, invites the audience to join her on a journey through America of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. This New York premiere is the culmination of Mr. Byrd’s three-year residency at 651.

1996–1997 — 651 receives its second Bessie Special Recognition Award for Dance Women/Living Legends, a program that honors the legacy of Jeraldyne Blunden (Dayton Contemporary Dance Company), Joan Myers Brown (Philadanco), Cleo Parker Robinson (Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble), Lula Washington (Lula Washington Dance Theatre), and Ann Williams (Dallas Black Dance Theatre), the founders of dance schools and companies for Black dancers.

Africa Exchange commissions and presents choreographer Ralph Lemon’s GeographyGeography was co-presented with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and received great media attention and public praise.

651 kicks off the first event of Lost Jazz Shrines, a national celebration of historic venues and communities that supported jazz earlier in the century. 651’s program honors musicians and communities that played a major role in the development of Brooklyn’s jazz music. 651 features Randy Weston’s Uhuru Afrika. In addition, 651 produces a videotaped oral history of selected musicians who were or are involved in Brooklyn’s jazz scene, and conducts a virtual bus tour of old jazz clubs.

1995–1996 — 651 launches the inaugural season of 651’s World Series, a three-year festival exploring the ways world cultures have influenced — and continue to influence — one another. For a period of three months, the series features a variety of performances, lectures, workshops, and dance parties focusing on English-speaking traditions from Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States.  As part of the series, 651 presents Opera Ebony’s production of Noa Ai’s The Outcast; Donald Byrd’s The Minstrel Show; On a Level, a performance piece presented by The BiBi Crew, a troupe of six women of Caribbean descent based in London; and Fete Fuh So!, a dance series curated by Reggie Wilson, featuring works by Wilson, as well as choreographers Cheryl Byron, Peter London, André George, Nadine Mose, Astor Johnson, and Priya and Pratap Pawar. The performance is preceded by a day-long Caribbean market, complete with steel band performances, food vendors, and storytelling. Choreographer Doug Elkins and his company and guest artist Willi Ninja end the series with Scott, Queen of Marys.

651 initiates Africa Exchange, a program that supports collaborations between performing artists from Africa and the U.S. With lead funding from the Ford Foundation, Africa Exchange provides opportunities for African artists to engage with their American counterparts in residency programs, workshops, panel discussions, and in the creation of new works.

651 co-sponsors Inroads/Africa, the first major American conference on cultural exchange with Africa, working with Arts International and Meet the Composer. The conference accommodates 250 African and U.S.-based artists, presenters, producers, co-commissioners, scholars, educators, funders, and collaborators, and includes professional presentations and video tape screenings of works by African artists, roundtable discussion, artist-led lectures/demonstrations, classes, and workshops.

651’s New Orleans Mardi Gras features New Orleans jazz, Cajun, and zydeco music performed by The Dirty Dozen and Queen Ida. A panel discussion entitled Creole Color & Class is presented in the Majestic Theater lobby between the performances. A New Orleans Cultural Brunch explores the art of food preparation and its cultural significance. 

Compagnie Ebène with Yenenga and Compagnie Azanie with A la vue d’un seul oeil make their New York debuts at 651. The company has been presented at the 1994 Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, France, and is hailed as a major new force in dance by New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff.

1994–1995 — 651 partners with El Puente, a youth service organization in Williamsburg, which leads to the presentation of Celebracion, a salsa program featuring Willie Colon and Ray Baretto. Workshops and seminars for children are part of the program.

Other events include: Jazz Ahead ’95, with Betty Carter; a five-day run of Pearl Cleage’s play, Flyin’ West; Soul Sisters, an evening of dance pieces by three young women choreographers, Martha Bowers, Janine Williams, and Patricia Hoffbauer; Jazz and Blues Legacy, featuring vocalist Sandra Reaves and Arvell Shaw & the Louis Armstrong Legacy Band; and the New York premiere of 651 artist-in-residence Donald Byrd/The Group’s Bristle.

651 receives a Bessie Choreographer/Creator Award for presenting the American debut of Compagnie Azanie.

1993–1994 — Jazz legend Betty Carter opens her first JazzAhead concert, as a result of her residency at 651. Carter’s first concert features more than 35 young musicians, aged 17$ndash;28, from seven states, together with Ms. Carter’s own trio. Over a three-year period, performances attract near-capacity audiences for virtuoso sessions that last three hours each.

1992–1993 — 651 starts its Artist Residency Program, designed to enable performers and organizations to grow artistically and institutionally while grounding their work in the daily life of Brooklyn’s communities. The first artists-in-residence are Betty Carter, Donald Byrd, and Opera Ebony.

651 presents the first Brooklyn performances of Anna Deavere Smith’s solo theater piece, Fires in the Mirror, a work that draws on interviews with African American and Jewish residents of Crown Heights who discuss the 1991 riots in their neighborhood in Brooklyn. 651 holds a post-performance panel discussion with members of the Black and Jewish communities, moderated by Newsday columnist Cheryl McCarthy.

Other season highlights include Donald Byrd’s Drastic Cut: The Muddy Water’s Story, a tribute to Muddy Waters with Koko Taylor and Junior Wells; For Miles and Miles, featuring Jimmy Heath and his ensemble, Slide Hampton, and Gary Bartz; Sheila’s Day, a play with music from South Africa; and Soul Sisters, a program uniting dancer Kim Bears, novelist Terry McMillan, and vocalist Cynthia Scott.

1991–1992 — 651 opens its third season with an ambitious eight-week concert series, 100 Years of Jazz and Blues, featuring eight thematic concerts with an impressive line-up of more than sixty performers. Among the headliners are Art Taylor, Barry Harris, Donald Byrd, Archie Shepp, Albert King, Betty Carter, Ernestine Anderson, Dakota Staton, Robert Junior Lockwood, Tito Puente, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ruth Brown, Jimmy Smith, Max Roach, and Panama Francis. 651 presents related jazz workshops, panel discussion, a Living Music Expo Exhibition, movie screenings and develops an extensive booklet on the history of jazz and blues.

1990–1991 — 651 launches a music series featuring contemporary and classic gospel music, a festival with music from the ’50s entitled The Baby Grand ’50s: Pan ‘n Jam, and a tribute to Charlie Parker and Audre Lorde.

1989–1990 — 651, An Arts Center celebrates its premiere season, committing to presenting performing arts geared towards Brooklyn’s diverse communities. Under the leadership of Mikki Shepard and Dr. Leonard Goines, 651’s inaugural season opens on May 6, 1989, with The Savoy Ballroom, a program re-creating the big-band era, featuring the Savoy Reunion Band with Panama Francis, Al Cobbs, Erskine Hawkins, and the Loren Schoenberg Band with Barbara Lea and alumni from the Benny Goodman Band.

Other inaugural season programs include Blue Lights in the Basement with the Original Dells, Jerry (Iceman) Butler, and the Impressions; The Brooklyn Church in Concert with Don Shirley, Hilda Harris, William Warfield, and the Morgan State University Choir; The Palladium featuring Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Orquestra Broadway, and Israel Lopez; and Nightlife: Africa Caribbean with Arrow, Sister Carol, and the Bhundu Boys.

1988 — The Majestic Theater Advisory Committee, a group of community leaders in the arts, and representatives of Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Borough President’s Office recommend that a new, nonprofit entity be formed to develop multicultural programs from a base within the Majestic Theater. The resulting entity, 651 is incorporated.

 

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6-5-1: Okwui Okpokwasili and Maria Bauman

6-5-1: An interview with Home in the Time of Brooklyn facilitators Okwui Okpokwasili and Maria Bauman.

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